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UAW once again expands its historic strike, hitting two of the Big 3 automakers

UAW members strike at GM's Lansing-Delta Assembly Plant in Lansing, Mich., on Sept. 29, 2023. The UAW on Friday expanded its strike against GM and Ford, but not Stellantis.
Bill Pugliano
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Getty Images
UAW members strike at GM's Lansing-Delta Assembly Plant in Lansing, Mich., on Sept. 29, 2023. The UAW on Friday expanded its strike against GM and Ford, but not Stellantis.

Updated September 29, 2023 at 2:32 PM ET

The United Auto Workers expanded its historic strike against General Motors and Ford by adding two additional assembly plants, ramping up pressure on the companies to come to a new contract deal.

Workers at Ford's Chicago Assembly Plant and GM's Lansing-Delta Assembly Plant walked off their jobs at noon. The plants employ around 7,000 people, bringing the total number of striking UAW auto workers to around 25,000 under the union's plans to gradually expand its strike against the Big Three automakers.

But UAW president Shawn Fain said the union would not expand its strike against Stellantis, saying the automaker formerly known as Chrysler had made a significant offer just moments before he was to announce the most recent moves.

Ford's Chicago plant builds the Ford Explorer, the Lincoln Aviator and police vehicles, while GM's Lansing-Delta plant assembles the Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse. A stamping plant at Lansing will not be shut down.

The automakers' most profitable vehicles, full-size pickup trucks, continue to be unaffected, and the plants that would have the biggest ripple effects on supply chains are also not yet targets for work stoppages.

Companies push back against UAW's rhetoric

Fain, in a Facebook Live appearance, compared the union's strike to World War II, saying that the workers of America are once again "the arsenal of democracy."

"Just like 80 years ago, today our union is building a different arsenal of democracy," he said. "But this war isn't against some foreign country. The front lines are right here at home. It's a war of the working class versus corporate greed."

Fain has used similar rhetoric before. On Thursday Stellantis issued a statementexpressing alarm about such language, especially given incidents of violence on some picket lines, which the company attributed to the union and which the union has blamed on non-union workers trying to cross picket lines.

"Words matter," the company wrote. "The deliberate use of inflammatory and violent rhetoric is dangerous and needs to stop. The companies are not 'the enemy' and we are not at 'war.' "

General Motors' head of global manufacturing, Gerald Johnson, issued a statement on Friday disputing the union's account of contract talks. Instead of GM failing to make a compelling offer, he says, it's the union who's been absent.

"We still have not received a comprehensive counteroffer from UAW leadership to our latest proposal made on September 21," he wrote. "Calling more strikes is just for the headlines, not real progress."

UAW President Shawn Fain addresses picketing union members at a GM Service Parts Operations plant in Belleville, Mich., on Sept. 26, 2023. The Big Three automakers are pleading the union to tone down its language, with Stellantis saying the two sides are not at war.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
UAW President Shawn Fain addresses picketing union members at a GM Service Parts Operations plant in Belleville, Mich., on Sept. 26, 2023. The Big Three automakers are pleading the union to tone down its language, with Stellantis saying the two sides are not at war.

Ford — which had been singled out for praise by the union last week, but was targeted again this week — held a call with investors and reporters to say that the two sides were actually very close to a deal on wages and benefits.

"I'm not going to share some of the specifics, but we're close," said Bryce Currie, the head of manufacturing in North America for Ford.

The sticking point, Ford said, was the union's insistence that future battery plants be covered by the same contract as assembly workers, which Ford could not commit to.

A UAW official told reporters that "serious disagreements" on economic issues like retirement healthcare remain, and that it's not accurate to say there is a single sticking point in talks.

An unprecedented and unusual strike action

The UAW went out on strike against Ford, GM and Stellantis two weeks ago, the first time in the union's history it targeted all three companies at once.

In another unusual move, the strike started small – just three assembly plants, leaving most of the automakers' production untouched.

A week later, the union expanded the strike to the parts distribution centers of GM and Stellantis – but not Ford, citing significant concessions Ford had been willing to make at the bargaining table.

The strategy, which the UAW describes as a "stand-up strike," is intended to ramp up pressure on the automakers gradually, instead of having all of the nearly 150,000 UAW auto workers walk off at once.

The UAW's strike comes at a time of heightened union activity across the U.S.. with some workers winning big new contracts, including UPS drivers and airline pilots.

Hollywood actors are also currently on strike, while Las Vegas hospitality workers and Kaiser Permanent health care workers are threatening to walk off their jobs.

The UAW is demanding substantially higher pay and benefits, arguing they gave up a lot of concessions to help keep automakers afloat before and during the 2008 financial crisis. The Big Three companies have argued that meeting the union's demands would jeopardize the investments they need to transition to electric vehicles and make it impossible to compete with non-union rivals.

The UAW's strike, centered in the pivotal swing state of Michigan, is also a political flash point. President Biden made an unprecedented visit to the picket line on Tuesday, endorsing the union's demands, including their push for a 40% raise over the next four years.

Meanwhile former president and Republican front-runner Donald Trump spoke at a non-union auto plant on Wednesday, where he criticized the transition to electric vehicles.

The UAW supports electric vehicles, while demanding more requirements for EVs and their components to be built in the U.S. with unionized labor.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Domonoske
Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.